In Yellowstone: Of Bears, Bison and Keeping the Park Green

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 24, 2018

YELLOWSTONE PARK—It is Main Street for wildlife. In the middle of inside-the-park Mammoth, Wyoming, a bull elk in full rut is crossing the street to get to his lady love. The look of a thwarted Don Juan is in his eye as he stands belligerently in the middle of the road, backing up traffic. Camera shutters click, and people get out of their cars, as a volunteer is heard screaming, “Back off, back off!”

That's one pissed-off rutting elk. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is not an isolated moment of crazy in the park. The papers are full of the man caught peeing at Old Faithful in the southern end of the 2.2-million acre park. “We take these cases very seriously,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk. “The law requires people to stay on boardwalks or marked trails in thermal areas.” Around the same time, a guy got knocked down by a bull elk, and someone else got caught taunting a bison.

Pronghorns can run 35 mph, but this one was grazing along the roadside--where he was safe from predators. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Especially in winter, when the snow is six feet or more deep, the bison walk right along the road. Pronghorns, too. We saw a poor bull bison who got hit by a car and now had a dangling rear leg. It probably won’t make it through the harsh, unforgiving winter.

A mountain or a butte? It's a beaut, either way. This was near Big Sky, Montana. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Handling wildlife-hit-by-cars calls is just one thing that park staff have to deal with. Yellowstone's budget is $90 million, approximately $12 million of which comes from the invaluable Yellowstone Forever--a combination fundraiser and nonprofit action agency. The group also provides guides, and ours, Garrett Tovey (who oddly enough taught at the boarding school I attended in India) got us up close and personal with wolves, mountain goats, osprey, pronghorns and more bison than you could shake a stick at.

That's a geyser known as the Beehive, and it's erupting! No it's not Old Faithful. We missed that one. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I knew all these animal stories would keep you reading! Lets head to Old Faithful, which goes off faithfully ever 90 minutes, give or take a few. That leeway is what causes us to miss seeing it erupt not once, not twice, but three times. “Two for one,” said a happy couple walking away from the spectacle. They caught the damned geyser going off twice. There are 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, and they probably saw all of them.

Laying porous pavement. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Just down the road, near another geyser called the Beehive (we did see that one spout up 60 feet twice, two for one), is a road crew helmed by a Brit in a cowboy hat. He’s Kevin Bagnall, CEO of KBI, which promotes sustainable paving solutions. The crew in installing 3,600 square feet of walkway, infused with crumbled tires (some from the park’s own service vehicles) as part of a $500,000 project unfolding in several stages. Some 7,600 tires have been used.

Flexi-Pave in place at Yellowstone. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The material is called Flexi-Pave, developed in 2001, and it’s here via a partnership with tiremaker Michelin, which is providing tires and financial help—necessary, because Flexi-Pave costs 2.5 times more than regular concrete or asphalt.

The road crew relaxes after work. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But the benefits are obvious. As Bagnall explains, the stuff is flexible, doesn’t crack (a big plus for maintenance crews) or settle—not even in temperatures that can reach 40 degrees below zero—won’t leach into the ground, prevents runoff into the park’s pristine streams and rivers, and actually cleans pollution from dissolved nitrates and phosphates. It fights erosion, too.

Wildfires burned in and around Yellowstone Park. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This isn’t rocket science it’s recycled tires with a proprietary aggregate material and a binder. “It’s a construction material with water conservation in mind for the next generation of infrastructure,” says Bagnall, whose crews were also in Cambridge, Massachusetts, installing walkways. “We have a finite amount of fresh water, as urbanization and population keep increasing.”

Bagnall adds that his paving is also “bison-proof.” He knows this because one of those huge animals, which can reach 1,000 pounds or more, walked across his Flexi-Pave and didn’t leave footprints.

Yes, that's a wolf, but at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. They were hunted out at the park, but are thriving now.  (Jim Motavalli photo)

Millions of square feet of porous paving have been installed by KBI, in places as diverse as Lagos, Nigeria, Great Britain and South America, but although its virtues are well known to devotees of the Green Building Council, its hardly mainstream yet. The material won’t work for interstates or even local roads, since it won’t support fast traffic, but it would be great for driveways and paths around the world.

If you see one of these bears, don't run! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Lynn Chan, another Brit and the landscape architect for the National Park Service at Yellowstone, is on site with a rake in her hands. She’s a big supporter of porous pavement. “We like permeable surfaces, and we’re all about recycled materials as well.” she says. “We look for porous solutions to deal with the large stormwater issues we have. We have to balance keeping the park natural with the need to provide large paved areas such as parking lots.”

Yellowstone is a pioneer in installing porous paving, with Michelin’s help, but now other national parks are also looking at it.

Andy Nickerson, who maintains vehicle fleets at Yellowstone, is open to trying out airless tires. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At a Yellowstone service garage, we check out the giant snow plows, plus rows of snowmobiles (“I hate the damn things—they’re always breaking down,” growled Andy Nickerson, fleet maintenance supervisor). Flat or prematurely worn tires are also a big problem, he said, pointing to a huge trailer of bad rubber that’s headed for the recycler in Great Falls.

A big-ass Yellowstone maintenance vehicle. (Jim Motavalli photo)

One of the garage’s utility vehicles offers a possible solution. It’s equipped with Michelin’s airless radial Tweels. The company is making a big bet on non-inflatable tires for commercial uses, and also working on the futuristic Vision tire for passenger cars. Tweels are available now for lawnmowers, UTVs, skid steers, golf carts, turf maintenance and more. Maybe tomorrow’s autonomous electric cars will have airless tires, making them near maintenance-free.

Recycled park tires like these end up in porous pavement. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Just down the road from Old Faithful, in the cute storybook western town of Yellowstone West, is Yellowstone Vacation Tours (YVT). The company is active in the fierce Montana/Wyoming winters, ferrying tourists to Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone on roads only accessible to snowmobiles and what are known as snow coaches.

A snow coach with tire inflation is ready for the eight-foot drifts. (Jim Motavalli photo)

These look like school buses on steroids. They are 14- and 30-passenger Ford trucks with lift kits and enormous knobby Michelin CargoXBib agricultural tires—meant to withstand repeated inflation and deflation. Until recently the tour company used triangular tracks to get over the snow, but now it’s 100 percent big tires.

Big, big tires for 30-passenger snow coaches. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Here’s where the cool stuff comes in. One of the trucks is equipped with a central tire inflation system from the Precision Tire Group. It would be great to have one of these in your car—no more stopping at those annoying air machines in gas stations! But they cost $10,000 and require the presence of an onboard electric air compressor.

Eight of these 1936 coaches are back on the road in Yellowstone, with modern drivetrains. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The way it works for YVT, explains operations manager Erik Dawkins, is that when the transports get stuck in snow drifts that can reach nine feet, the driver simply deflates the tires from his nice, warm seat. At six or even two pounds per square inch, the vehicles’ have extra wide and long rubber areas in contact with the snow. That and the all-wheel-drive gets them out. Dawkins says he’s gotten out of snow so high that there was three feet of it on the roof of the bus when he got back to the garage.

The Dude abides, in West Yellowstone, Montana. (Jim Motavalli photo)

 Later, in West Yellowstone, next to the Dude Motel (Big Lebowski connection?) we unwind at the best pizza bar in Yellowstone. Everyone may be in a cowboy hat, but the air is thick with accents—German, English, even Chinese. (Visits from the latter are on the upswing in Yellowstone.) We bet they will all see Old Faithful. 

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One